Starting a Business with a Helping of Homework

Young women are charging into entrepreneurship. We talked to five dynamos who founded businesses in college or soon after — and learned a lot about the benefits of starting up young.

Natalie Gaisser By Natalie Gaisser

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More and more young women are starting businesses all over the globe — and college-aged women are leading the charge.

In the United States, the number of women business owners under the age of 25 surged 40 percent to 245,349 in 2012 from 175,302 in 2007, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the National Women’s Business Council. These women are helping close the yawning gender gap in business ownership. In this age group, 45 percent of businesses are owned by women compared to only 35 percent for all U.S. companies.

Starting up in college is difficult. After all, there are still papers to write, problem sets to finish and finals to study for. But there are also numerous benefits that young entrepreneurs — especially women — can reap by becoming business owners while in school.

“Young women thrive and excel as entrepreneurs under conditions of a vibrant community of peers and mentors, with access to key resources and an interactive learning environment,” says Amanda Elam, research director at the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College.

Beyond offering such environments, universities may be helping to drive gains in young female entrepreneurship. In recent years, many have added women-focused small business programs — and for good reason. “Research suggests that women make excellent business owners/managers, but that their talents go under recognized in the male-dominated startup world,” says Elam. “Global research [also] shows that investing in women is important for economic growth.”

To explore this growing group of women entrepreneurs, The Story Exchange interviewed five young women from New York to Brasília. All of them started their businesses during or right after college, and all of them have had their ability to run a business doubted because of their gender, their age — or both.

 

Katherine Jin: Kinnos
An Inventor With a Vision Overcomes Skeptics

katherine Jin-1Katherine Jin never thought she’d be an inventor. Like many girls, she didn’t see that as a career path.

“There aren’t a lot of women in tech, yet,” Jin says. Growing up, she idolized women like Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter. “Rubin was ostracized for her work,” Jin says, “but held on to her convictions. She was a pioneer for women in STEM. It’s because of women like her [that] I decided to major in biochemistry and computer science.”

Today, Jin is a woman inventor. She and her two co-founders, Jason Kang and Kevin Tyan, created Highlight in 2014, a bleach additive that improves the disinfecting process. They developed the chemical compound in response to Columbia University’s Design Challenge: Confronting the Ebola Crisis. Their product dyes bleach so healthcare workers can easily see whether it has covered all surfaces. It also reduces the formation of droplets so bleach covers waterproof surfaces more completely and increases the time bleach remains on a surface before evaporating. Highlight won Columbia’s competition and went on to win the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge in 2014.

Even after this success, Jin didn’t think of Highlight as a business opportunity. She saw it as interesting idea and a way to help protect healthcare workers getting mowed down by Ebola. It wasn’t until the chief medical officer of New York City’s Fire Department reached out to them that Jin realized Highlight’s commercial potential.

“He contacted us about field testing Highlight with FDNY hazmat teams. After the second round of field testing, he told us he wanted to buy it.”

Jin and her co-founders formed their company, Kinnos, soon after receiving that first order from the FDNY. She serves as its chief operating officer, focusing on business strategy and long-term business development, and she has plans for branching out. “Highlight has a lot of potential; it has a place anywhere bleach solutions are used for decontamination,” Jin says. “It can be used in hospitals, labs, vehicles that carry food.”

Right now, Kinnos is focused exclusively on Highlight’s health applications while it looks for a bulk manufacturer. “Setting up a manufacturing pipeline has been difficult because of the quantity and quality of the chemicals we need,” Jin says.

Amid this success, work/school balance has dogged Jin and her co-founders. While they received recognition, a grant and lab space from Columbia, they were not excused from class. “Kinnos was in a competition final’s week, so one of my co-founders didn’t study for his organic chemistry final. He got a 16 out of 100,” Jin laughs. “It was painful watching my grades drop, but I had to learn to appreciate accomplishments beyond high grades.”

Even after graduating in May 2016, being comfortable with giving everything to Kinnos has been tough. Jin and her co-founders have barely drawn salaries and are pinching pennies wherever they can. “It’s very risky,” Jin says.

Yet Jin’s greatest challenge is one she didn’t expect. She is treated as less capable because she’s female. For instance, she presented Kinnos solo at a venture capital competition, and the organizers remarked about how brave she was to do it alone. They said nothing to the man who signed in before her, though he was also presenting alone.

“I wasn’t being brave,” Jin says. “I was doing my job.” It has been difficult for Jin to decide when to speak up about microaggressions, and when to let them go, she says. “Being a female inventor in a technical space is much harder than I thought.”

Jin has not let that stop her, persevering just like Vera Rubin. “I am really excited to make those big sales at the end of this year, beginning of next year,” Jin says. “There are so many benefits Highlight can bring, not only improving the disinfecting powers of bleach but making the disinfecting process all-around safer for healthcare workers.”

 

Cristina Rodriguez: Mind & Melody
Helping Patients Heal through the Power of Music

Cristina Rodriguez and Lauren Koff-1Cristina Rodriguez combined her two passions in Mind & Melody: music and medicine.

At the age of 10, her love of music was ignited by learning to play the cello. Four years later, she discovered her passion for medicine while volunteering at Miami Children’s Hospital. Ever since then, she envisioned filling a room with instruments where the community and hospital-bound children could come together and make music. “I wanted to find a way to share something that I loved with the kids there,” Rodriguez says.

She tried to turn her vision into a reality while volunteering at Miami Children’s Hospital, but when her email inquiry bounced back, she gave up. “I wasn’t developed enough as a person, yet,” she says.

In 2014, Rodriguez teamed up with Lauren Koff for a joint thesis project at Florida Atlantic University’s Honor College. They researched the effects of music on neurocognitive disorders, and found extraordinary benefits. For the first time, Rodriguez had everything she needed to realize her childhood dream. She and Koff decided their thesis would be a music program for Alzheimer’s patients facing extended hospital stays, bringing in local volunteers to teach them simple ways to make music.

Discouragingly, their advisor said that running this type of program would be too complicated for a thesis — every volunteer would have to be approved by the institutional review board, a process that would take well over a year. However, FAU encouraged Rodriguez and Koff to start Mind & Melody as a side project, allowing them to work with FAU’s Memory and Wellness Center. It was at this facility that they began an 8-month pilot program, developing a curriculum and classes for what became their nonprofit organization.

Since graduating FAU in 2015, Rodriguez and Koff have dedicated themselves to Mind & Melody. It has been challenging. Rodriguez has missed family events. She isn’t working in biochemistry, the field she majored in. She has had to take a part-time job.

“Whatever project you jump into,” Rodriguez says, “There will be a lot of sacrifice. It takes over your life. You need to be ready for that.”

However, one of Rodriguez’s biggest challenges has been her age. “The other day, I was asked to give a speech before a hospital fundraiser. And when the organizer met me, she asked if I was okay with public speaking.” Rodriguez doesn’t think the organizer would have been frazzled if she were older. “I think it would be easier if I had a few wrinkles and some gray hair,” Rodriguez laughs. “But once they get to know me, they are impressed with my achievements and respect me.”

Mind & Melody has worked with eight long-term care facilities in southern Florida, and Rodriguez has plans for growth — but first she’s laying a stronger foundation. To date, the organization has brought in about $12,000, half in donations and competition winnings and half in service fees from offering classes at local hospitals. It has also received $46,000 worth of in-kind donations of software, legal assistance and other services.

“Our goal for this year is to perfect the self-sustaining model,” she says. “We sell our services to long term, but we need to work out a few logistical kinks to get to 100 percent self-sustaining.”

Once the organization can stand on its own, Rodriguez wants to develop a line of instruments for Mind & Melody programs and to expand outside of Florida. “We want to set up chapters at more universities,” she says. “They have the hospitals, and the eager volunteers.”

 

Sabrina Fidalgo: Pervaleo
Giving Brazilians Better Social Media

Sabrina Fidalgo Headshot-1Sabrina Fidalgo was inspired to start Pervaleo, a social networking site based in Brazil, while sitting in a sustainability lecture at Columbia University. She realized that she wanted to create a social networking site that encouraged people to live healthier, more sustainable lives.

“Facebook is not enough,” Fidalgo says. “We want to inspire people to do something good for society. I want to give my son better social media.”

The site is currently under development, but Fidalgo and her co-founder/brother are building a user base through various social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Vimeo. When the site is live, it will be a space for articles on cultural activities, sports, fitness and sustainable living practices. For each article or blog post that users write, they will receive points that are redeemable for gifts, such as seeds and small plants. This system encourages people to use the site and to create content, which draws advertisers.

Site launch, now set for October 20, is the most daunting task on Fidalgo’s and her company’s horizon, especially since there have been setbacks. “We have been through three developers in 8 months, and while it has been a valuable learning experience, waiting to launch has been difficult.”

Finding the right partners has also been a challenge, mostly because of her age, she says. “I walked into a meeting with the CEO of a firm. He was much older than I was. While we spoke, he asked me dozens of rapid-fire questions, giving me no time to answer before he’d moved on. It was only when I responded in an equally aggressive manner that he sat back and listened to me.”

Fidalgo is already planning for post-launch. Right now she is in talks with Columbia to see if the university is interested in funding Pervaleo, but she is waiting until after launch to make a formal presentation.

“The most difficult part of my journey was having no idea how to start,” Fidalgo says. “But I really believe in people’s potential to do good things for the planet.”

 

Pooja Misal: The Brick Group of Institutes
Filling a Hole in India’s Educational System

Pooja-1After studying in the United Kingdom and in the U.S., Pooja Misal realized that architecture and design education were missing back in India — and that didn’t seem right to her.

“If I am not happy with something, I will try to change it,” says Misal, who aspired to study those subjects herself. “So why not try solving this problem? I decided to see what I could do.”

In 2013, following a year and a half of education research, work experience at a college in her hometown of Pune and thanks to a loan from her mother, Misal founded an architecture school and a design school under the umbrella of the Brick Group of Institutes. Both fields have been neglected in India, she says, because few people saw viable careers as architects and designers. Yet over the past few years, that perception has changed, and the subjects have become much more popular.

Starting a college has not been a walk in the park. Most of Misal’s time as executive director is spent complying with regulations, which come down from the local, state and national governments, along with India’s Council of Architecture.

And, like the other young women we have interviewed, she faces constant questions about her age. “I have had people come to me and demand to meet the director. I have to tell them that I am the director. They are expecting an old man to be sitting in the chair, not me. It’s a constant battle to prove myself.”

Despite the difficulties, Misal pushes through in tribute to her dad. “My role model for anything I’ve wanted to do has always been my father. He was a very very ambitious man, a rags to riches story. But he didn’t rise alone, he helped everyone around him. And since his passing, I can carry on his dreams and help improve the world, as he was always trying to do.”

The first class of architecture students will graduate next year, and Misal looks forward to each day as executive director of the Brick Institutes. “I’m never afraid of the mundane. Walking around the college, seeing the students enjoying themselves, their fashion, how much they’re learning, it motivates me to keep on improving what we’re doing.”

 

Miranda Scott: The Waffle Cookie
A Passion For Business and Sweets Helps Feed a Community’s Rebirth

Miranda Scott at a Competition (1)-1Miranda Scott is passionate about sweets. So passionate, that in the summer of 2015 she and her best friend from high school decided to start The Waffle Cookie, a company that combines cookie and waffle batter to make a delectable treat. However, they wanted their business to do much more than make a profit.

“I am really interested in business and entrepreneurship… and super passionate about food,” says Scott, who is chief executive. “Growing up outside of Detroit, we really wanted to do something to help the city, so we decided to create a social enterprise.” For every ten waffle cookies it sells, it donates one meal to a person in need. “The food entrepreneurship community in Detroit is exceptional. Everyone is trying to contribute to the revival of the city via the food industry.”

While Scott is running her business (her co-founder has since left the company), she is working to get her college degree in sociology from Colgate University and learning about entrepreneurship through a university program, Thought Into Action. Unsurprisingly, one of Scott’s greatest challenges is balancing it all.

Currently, Scott bakes all the orders herself, but she is looking to find a contract manufacturer or a co-packer to take over production and shipping, so she can focus on growing the business — and doing her class work. However, she has struggled to find either.

“I sound very young,” Scott says. “When I’d call a co-packer, they’d ask how old I was. When I told them I was 19, they wouldn’t take me seriously.” Scott is now in talks with a company in southern Illinois, and looping them into her business would make The Waffle Cookie much more scalable. “The sky is the limit,” according to Scott.

While her age has been a barrier at times, Scott also sees it as an advantage. “Now is the best time to be talking to people and getting advice, because while you’re in college people don’t see you as competition or a threat, just as someone young, so they’re more willing to help you and give you their connections.” Scott says. “And when you’re in school, you have a cushion — whether or not I eat isn’t dependent on how many waffle cookies I sell.”

There are even more advantages to starting up in a college’s cradle. Scott has attended three university startup competitions, Colgate’s Shark Tank competition, the Saint Louis University’s Real Elevator Pitch competition and its Pitch and Catch competition. Many schools hold events like these that offer real funding opportunities and valuable exposure to investors that are only open to students.

At Colgate’s Shark Tank Competition, Scott was the crowd No. 1 favorite and won second place over all, earning her $5,200 in winnings. One of the panelists matched the prize, so Scott walked away with $10,400. At the Pitch and Catch Competition, she placed third, winning $3,000 and an all-expenses paid trip to St. Louis to meet a network of angel investors.

“Having control over a business… it’s a cool feeling, you can’t really get it any other way,” Scott says. “Especially since most young entrepreneurs have been in school our whole lives, it’s liberating to set your own requirements and do what you think is right.”

Posted: August 16, 2016

Natalie GaisserStarting a Business with a Helping of Homework